by Cassandra Hennessey
Oh, it pains me to write this, it really does; but I have not watched Fear the Walking Dead since its return in August.
Yes! Me; The Champion of the show since Season One, Episode One! Me; The one who was giving people grief on Twitter to have patience and let the show develop before judging it as “boring” or “not having enough walkers to make it interesting”! To be honest, I haven’t had the interest or the unction to continue as an avid audience member.
I know, it’s shocking to me, too.
The elusive “why” hit me just now, as I was mulling my malaise towards the series over my second cup of coffee.
It’s characterization– or the lack thereof– that has made me so antipathetic toward this show.
Fear the Walking Dead’s characters HAVE NO CHARACTER!
Wait. Hear me out.
I understand that the show has no source material to draw upon like its predecessor; but that’s no excuse. With as popular a genre as zombie fiction is, there’s more than enough material out there to siphon from.
In Season One, the story was gripping in its realism with what I like to call the “small touches of 21st Century Tropes”– the YouTube video of the walker attacking the EMS worker; police shootings of walkers causing civil unrest for being mistaken instances of “excessive force”; missing children posters gradually appearing near the playground at the onset of the outbreak. These drew the viewer into the story with that sense of “What If?” realistic circumstances…
…And then they got to the boat. Once they got the cast onto the Abigail, I believe it was all bets off.
What could have really played as a “Twelve Angry Men” dramatic scenario with a ragtag group of perfect strangers in the confines of a vessel out to sea surrounded by unknown threats fizzled. I believe there could have been more tension on board– especially between Strand, Maddie and Salazar, who have the Type A personality traits of the cast.
This takes me back to my original thought about how characterization has been handled on both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. Let’s examine the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances, shall we?
On The Walking Dead, we know Michonne is a badass with an eclectic appreciation for the arts. Remember the multi colored cat statue she just had to go back for, or the house where she removed the tarps from the hanging paintings, to peruse the artwork? We know she has a silly side and a penchant for Crazy Cheese.
Or how about Andrea’s moral dilemma of taking the mermaid necklace from the mall to give to her sister, Amy? We found out three things in that scene very subtly; A) Andrea was tentative about taking the necklace without paying for it B) Rick realizing that on any other day, it would be considered larceny to simply take the necklace, but now in the Zombie Apocalypse, all societal norms have been cast aside and condoned Andrea’s taking it for her sister; and C) Andrea has a sister who really, really likes– and at one time collected– all things mermaid-related.
Or how about Carl? Growing up in the Zombie Apocalypse must suck. This kid has had to learn to shoot efficiently to survive while still being a kid enough to enjoy chocolate pudding and read comic books.
We could go on to discuss at great length Daryl’s relationship with his brother Merle, his dysfunctional childhood, and finding a sense of family in Rick’s group.
These nuances, these sprinklings of humanity are what Fear the Walking Dead sorely lacks.
We do know a few things; Daniel Salazar has a dark, sordid past. So does Strand. And that Travis is a pretty good mechanic in a pinch.
But do we care about these characters? About what happens to them? No, not really.
It’s disappointing, because I really was intrigued by Nick in Season One. I was like, “Wow, what an interesting angle; a junkie in the Zombie Apocalypse. Someone who’s wily and streetwise, manipulative and self-destructive. It’ll be interesting to see how he redeems himself and others during this ultimate test of endurance and struggle to survive…”
…And then, it seemed the writers simply FORGOT that Nick was a junkie. Gone were the withdrawals, the trawling for a fix. Not only that, but it seems that lately, they’ve tried to morph him more into Murphy from Z Nation. They’ve made him into the Walker King.
And can we talk about Maddie? You know what– never mind. Maddie spent most of Season Two berating Strand about what to do and where to go with HIS OWN BOAT after he was gracious enough to let her and her family come along to escape L.A.
So, there’s a two-fold problem here– not enough characterization and not enough likability. I know I wouldn’t want to be trapped anywhere with any one of these characters. Okay, maybe Travis. But that is it. I think that’s because Cliff Curtis is doing an incredible job portraying the Every Man character the best he can despite the material he’s been given and well, Travis for some odd reason reminds me of Chief Brody from Jaws. Just saying. He’s got a “Roy Scheider circa 1975” vibe going.
The other day when discussing the show, I couldn’t remember Ophelia’s name. I literally blanked on it. I’ve never done that with The Walking Dead. Even with minor characters.
And therein lies the problem. That’s HUGE. Not to remember a name of a character that has been there since Season One.
I remember Carol’s husband’s name. Ed was a piece of trash. Shane pummeled said piece-of-trash how many seasons ago? And how many episodes was Ed in?
That’s what I’m saying, folks. Characterization. Believe-ability. In Ed’s case it wasn’t likability– because he was a wife-beating, belligerent scumbag– but it was the sympathy for Carol and Sophie and giving the nod to Shane meting out an appropriate punishment that made him memorable.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t touched on the metamorphosis of Carol as a character– THAT is for an entirely different article. Actually, I would write about that in an entire chapter of a book!
As viewers, we were told that we were going to witness how a “21st Century Family Unit” was going to weather the storm and survive the Zombie Apocalypse.
But, by the Season Two mid-season finale, the family had been split up– Madison and Alicia escaped with Strand, Travis decides to stay behind with a gone-off-the-deep-end Chris, and Nick– who ventured off on a solo adventure in the wilds of Mexico, covered in entrails, masquerading as King of the Walkers …
That was the mid-season finale. And frankly, I wasn’t intrigued enough to watch what happened next upon its return. It wasn’t as gut-wrenching or emotional to provoke a “OMG, I can’t wait to see what happens next!” reaction. In fact, after Daniel Salazar’s apparent fiery demise, it was almost anti-climatic.
Now, I’m not going to merely bash the show without offering some thoughts of how to resolve this glaring problem with the writing, so here it is: MAKE US CARE ABOUT THESE CHARACTERS. Let us be able to identify with them more. You don’t have to show us the skeletons in their closets; just let us in on what makes them tick.
So far, they haven’t really had to struggle for food or water. Hell, they’ve been on a YACHT for a whole season. Alicia is a privileged, spoiled brat who appears freshly styled and caked with cosmetics; Chris is an emo-turned-psychopath. Madison is a bossy shrew. And Ophelia is underused and uninteresting. Have I missed anything?
Evidently not, because its viewership has been steadily on the decline since its return from Mid-Season Break. I’m not the only one who has opted out. Fear the Walking Dead has gone from premiering with 7.61 million viewers in 2015 to only 2.99 million viewers (September 4th, 2016’s episode). They’ve got to step up their game. The numbers should be a startling eye-opener to AMC that something is very wrong.
Some have speculated that it’s because there is no definitive “villain” on the show, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. The problem goes much deeper than the introduction of a “discount Governor” or “Dime Store Neagan” could resolve. Again, if we don’t care about these characters, we won’t root for them as they struggle against whatever or whoever the obstacle is.
I’m not saying that we should know what Alicia’s favorite color is (though, in a purely psychological character-study sense, it might have embellished in the scene when they were rummaging through the luggage from the doomed Flight 462 to show some preference for color or style). It would have added to the “teenager” aspect of her character and maybe sparked some telling dialog between her and her estranged brother, Nick.
We see that Maddie’s a heavy drinker. Have her mention what her favorite beverage of choice is. Maybe mention that she used to raid her dad’s liquor when she was Alicia’s age. We get the feeling of her being unconventional and on the cusp of being inducted into the Hall of Badassery, but we’ve got no backstory to base our intuitions upon.
We’re fast approaching the conclusion of Season Two and have not gotten to truly acquaint the main characters to appreciate their personal plights.
I’m not going to be crass enough to suggest that there needs to be a change of command at the helm of this ship, but perhaps AMC would do best to find another showrunner who may correct the course and steer this vessel into better waters.
That being said, AMC has greenlit the show for Season 3 to air in April of 2017.
If you’re a fan of the show, what’s your take? How do you feel the show could be improved? Do you feel there’s a need for improvement at all? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Cassandra Hennessey is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer. You can learn more about her HERE